Ghosts of Botnets Past, Present, and Future

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‘Twas the morning of October 21st, and all through the house many IoT devices were stirring, including a connected mouse. Of course, this wasn’t the night before Christmas, but rather the morning of Dyn — the 2016 DDoS attack on the service provider that took the entire East Coast offline for a few hours. The root of the attack: botnets, AKA unsecured IoT devices that were enslaved by Mirai malware. And though this attack made history back in 2016, botnet attacks and the manipulation of vulnerable IoT devices have shown no signs of slowing since. To explore how these attacks have evolved over time, let’s examine the past, present, and future of botnets.

The Past

Any internet-connected device could potentially become a botnet. A botnet is an aggregation of connected devices, which could include computers, mobile devices, IoT devices, and more that have been infected and thereby under the control of one malware variant. The owners of these devices are typically unaware their technology has been infected and thereby under the control of the malware author.

This infection and enslavement process came to a powerful fruition on that fateful October morning, as thousands of devices were manipulated by Mirai malware and transformed into botnets for cybercriminals’ malicious scheme. Cybercriminals used this botnet army to construct one of the largest DDoS attacks in recent history on DNS provider Dyn, which temporarily knocked major sites such as Twitter, Github, and Etsy offline.

The Present

Now, the Dyn attack is arguably one of the most infamous in all of security history. But that doesn’t mean the attacks stop there. Fast forward to 2018, and botnets are still just as prominent, if not more. Earlier in the year, we saw Satori emerge, which even borrowed code from Mirai, as well as Hide N Seek (HNS), which has managed to build itself up to 24,000 bots since January 10th.

What’s more — DDoS attacks, which are largely driven by botnets, have also showed no signs of slowing this year. Just take the recent WordPress attack for example, which actually involved an army of over 20,000 botnets attacking sites across the web.

The Future

Botnets don’t just have a past and present — they likely have a future as well. That’s because cybercriminals favor the potency of this ‘infect and enslave’ tactic, so much so that they’re trying to spread it far and wide. Turns out, according to one report, you can even rent an IoT botnet, as one Dark Web advertisement displayed a 50,000-device botnet for rent for a two-week duration to conduct one-hour attacks a rate of $3000 – $4000.

The good news is — the cybersecurity industry is preparing for the future of botnet attacks as well. In fact, we’ve engineered technology designed to fight back against the nature of insecure IoT devices — such as our Secure Home Platform solution.

However, a lot of the botnet attacks can be stopped by users themselves if they implement strong security practices from start. This means changing the default passwords on any new IoT device you get, keeping any and all software up-to-date, always using a firewall to detect unusual behavior, and implementing comprehensive security software to ensure that all your computers and devices have protection.

If users everywhere implement the right processes and products from the start, botnet attacks may eventually become a thing of the past, and won’t ever be part of the present again.

To learn more about IoT device security and our approach to it, be sure to follow us at @McAfee and @McAfee_Home.

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